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Things Your Helicopter CFI Wish You Knew

Helicopter Navigation:  Why Learn Helicopters | Costs | Private Pilot Helicopter | Commercial Pilot Helicopter | Glossary | Helicopter Lesson Guides | Helicopter Ground School | SFAR73 

by Darren Smith, CFII/MEI
from PocketLearning, August 2003

Want to get through your training with minimum expense? Is safety and building good flying skill important to you? Your flight instructor can only do so much to instill the proper skills to make you a safe pilot... the rest is up to you. In addition, there are common sense things you can do to make your training experience efficient, pleasant, and fulfilling. 


1. Aviate, Navigate, Communicate. And in that order! The most important task for the pilot developing new skills is to fly the aircraft. New pilots trying to divide their time aviating and communicating do neither very well. You can hear them stutter, make incorrect radio calls, and make interesting verbal pauses when they commit a variety of errors in the traffic pattern. The flight isn't over until you're back in the chocks. So keep your eyes out of the cockpit and stop to perform your checklists. A recent accident was caused by the student pilot performing the after landing checklist during the landing roll... nose pointed at the ditch on the side of the runway. Moral of the story: 

  • Learn how to fly before you talk on the radio 
  • Stop the aircraft to perform checklists. 
  • Fly the aircraft FIRST, see #2
2.  Fly the aircraft first.  I'm sure your flight instructor taught you this. The key concept here is keep the flight parameters within safe tolerances... airspeed... altitude...  heading... power… all are key to ensuring proper resolution to any upset, distraction, or problem.  Too many accident reports include the phrase, "Failure of the pilot to maintain...."   Fly the aircraft first, remembering its not over until the chocks are set.  Awareness of altitude and airspeed cannot be under emphasized.

3. Look out the window. Of the top three killers in general aviation, collision avoidance is number two.  The crash stats indicate mid-air collisions happen on good weather days below 3000AGL.  That's where you are when the stuff starts happening, isn't it?  Most people forget that good collision avoidance begins in the landing zone.  Doing pedal turns to view downwind, base and final should be a top priority.  Jim learned how important this was when his checkride was over before takeoff.  His examiner sent a strong message that collision avoidance is a top priority.  It seems unavoidable but student pilots would rather stare at the instrument panel, play with the moving map GPS, or read checklists while the aircraft is moving. A good pilot is scanning outside the aircraft 85-90% of the time in VFR conditions. Remember, crash stats indicate midair collisions happen on good weather days and at low altitudes. That's exactly where most students are.


4. Don't cancel flight lessons. Sure there is always the occasional emergency - but it should be a once in a year event. Most CFIs have over $30-40,000 invested in their flight training yet are paid about the same as the screw sorter at Home Depot. Flight Instructors do not receive compensation to sit at the flight school. They make their income only when the student shows up for instruction. It’s difficult for instructors to find other students to fill your slot, even with 24 hour notice. Don't be surprised if your instructor charges cancellation fees... not unlike other paid professionals. 


5. Show up on time. Why not show up early to preflight your aircraft? Why would you pay your instructor to watch you do that? If you are late for your lesson, it causes stress for both you and your instructor as you rush through the lesson that was planned for you. If the aircraft isn't available to you when you arrive, review notes from your previous lesson, and the maneuvers planned for this lesson. 


6. Show up prepared. You will get the most bang for your bucks by being prepared. Even the best instruction cannot fully compensate for lack of preparation. Become intimately familiar with your training materials and you'll save incredible amounts of money. Its much better for you to learn at home for free rather than while the aircraft engine is running. 


7. Use the checklist! Its not only the quickest way to fail a checkride, the accident stats prove its a common way to kill yourself. If you don't know how, ask your instructor. Want to save money on your flight training? Learn your aircraft's checklists and procedures early in your training. You can practice these on the ground for free


8. Preflight weather briefing. A preflight briefing consisting of weather and TFRs is an absolute must. Take a look at FAR 91.103 to see what your responsibility in this matter is and you'll realize the folly of ignoring this crucial step. Use authoritative sources of information such as the FSS station or DUATS. If you don't know how, ask your instructor. 


9. Take care of the equipment. Since most students rent aircraft for training, the potential consequences of a touchdown aren't readily appreciated. There are two kinds of pilots: the one who cares about the aircraft as if it were his, and the one who doesn't care. Which one are you? And if you don't care, how long do you think you'll survive? Be gentle on the controls, the engine, the rotors. Your instructor is a great resource on the proper way to preflight an aircraft, so if you're unsure, ask. 


10. Talk about your progress. Share your feelings, frustrations, successes and failures. No doubt your CFI has seen it before and knows how to get you through the struggles that come with learning how to fly. Sometimes its difficult to assess a student's fatigue or saturation point. An open dialogue with your instructor will go a long way in making your training experience fulfilling and efficient. 


11. Be smooth. In all your actions, smoothness will keep your instructor's nerves from getting frazzled as well as limit unsafe flight conditions. "Small correction!" is what my old CFI used to yell at me. When I become a CFI, it became my favorite phrase. When the pilot jerks the aircraft controls, its a good sign he doesn't have good control of it.  When you make that small correction, give it time. See how the aircraft responds and evaluate whether you need another small correction. This includes keeping RPM in the green arc, 5 foot hover height for hover practice, smooth application of pedal, and smooth use of cyclic and collective.


12. Communicate your intentions. The flight instructor can't read your mind... so tell him what you are about to do before you do it. Whatever you do, don't scare your instructor with sudden climbs, turns, or descents. And anything that starts with, "Hey, watch this" usually signals trouble. Surprises are much better when they come in the form of buying your instructor a diet coke after the lesson. See Training CRM


13. Plan - Do - Check - Analyze. Plan your maneuvers before execution. While you are doing the maneuver, check to be sure you're within standards. Then after you've completed it, analyze your performance. Do you need to apply more back pressure on that steep turn? Why did you flare too high on that last landing? Your instructor would like to hear your answers. 


14. Be a partner in learning. Try to get as much value from your CFI as possible. Some of the things you can do to improve your retention of lessons learned include: asking questions, reviewing the relevant book material after a lesson, seeking additional sources of information (videos, tapes, magazines), and pairing with another student. All of these things will make your instructor's life easier, and shorten the time it takes you to acquire the knowledge required to be successful in your goal. 


15. Get your rating as quickly as possible. Not only will you spend less money, you'll complete your training with a minimum of wasted effort. Schedule your lessons so you can fly regularly. The longer the time between lessons, the more the student forgets resulting in more time spent reviewing past lessons. Make sure that finances and family life are under control while you embark on your training plan. Then, once you start, don't stop. The aviation learning curve is steep enough to merit consistent attention until you achieve your goal. 


16. Be responsible. The pilot is the ultimate command authority for the flight... the one responsible for the safe conduct of that flight. If anything goes wrong, passengers look to the pilot who must step up to the plate and take responsibility. The goal of flight instruction is to gradually transfer that responsibility to you. Are you ready? That can't happen unless the student seeks to be:
  • a partner in learning, a self driven professional who craves knowledge about aviation. 
  • precise in their flying, a passion for doing things correctly goes beyond using the checklist, its a way of life. 
  • safe, never taking unnecessary risks, and properly managing the risks of flight. 
  • prepared as a student, for each lesson, but even more important, a prepared pilot who plans each flight and seeks to know "all available information." 
  • the ultimate judge of their own performance, accepting responsibility for their setbacks and asking for help to improve their skills while not being too self-critical.

Safety Resources

IFR Risk Management
Making Safe Choices
Flying Discipline
Hazardous Attitudes
Aviation Safety Programs

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